In the Archives: William Blair Bell and Cancer Research


As September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness month this blog will focus on a collection in the archive related to cancer research. The RCOG archives have extensive collections relating to Professor William Blair Bell, co-founder of the College and the first President, serving from 1929 to 1931. These collections cover his career and interests, both professionally and personally. He was not only dedicated to obstetric and gynaecological care and research but also had a particularly strong interest in cancer, the causes and treatment of it. By the early 1920s he was pioneering using lead as a treatment for cancer. All of this is well documented in the archives.

An International Conference of Cancer was held 100 years ago in London in July 1928, arranged by the British Empire Cancer Campaign, a predecessor of Cancer Research UK. Shortly before the conference took place HM the King became Patron of the British Empire Cancer Campaign, with HRH The Duke of York already President.

Duke of York letter


Blair Bell attended this conference, opened a discussion on the Etiology of Cancer, and spoke on ‘Chemotherapy in Malignant Disease with Special Reference to Lead’. The discussions opened up a debate on his studies and his use of lead as a treatment.

Whilst the discussion was somewhat difficult and it was not without its controversy, the fact that all this took place is an important part of the history of cancer research and awareness.

The papers we have in the archive cover Blair Bell’s research, his correspondence and reports with regards to cancer and other areas of medical research. Specifically we have his papers relating to this conference and the discussions of his lead treatment which followed.

Below are just a couple of further examples from the archive.




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